Boys soccer | Finally healthy, Lakewood Ranch primed to make serious run at state title

adell@bradenton.comFebruary 14, 2014 

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- At one time, injuries were piling up so quickly Lakewood Ranch head boys soccer coach Vito Bavaro might have thought about going to medical school.

He certainly had enough potential patients on his team to keep him busy.

Instead, Bavaro proved to be a surgical genius. He rearranged his roster to compensate for the injuries and when everyone got healthy found himself with a powerhouse team.

The Mustangs have gone from a fourth seed in the district tournament to a state tournament berth. Lakewood Ranch (14-7-6) will face Melbourne (21-1-1) at 12:30 p.m. Friday in the Class 4A state semifinal at Eastern Florida State College in Melbourne.

In January, the healing process began. Goalie Liam Bramley recovered from his second dislocated knee in two years and returned to the net. The Mustangs have lost only one match since.

The senior has allowed 14 goals in 17 games (0.82 average) and has 80 saves, some of the spectacular variety.

It's the first trip to the final four for the program and Bavaro, who is in his seventh year as head coach. He needs two victories to reach the 100-win mark.

"We are absolutely underdogs, and that's the way we like it," Bavaro said. "Nobody gives us a chance. We have nothing to lose. We are going to come out firing on all cylinders, throw the kitchen sink at them and see if we can shake things up. Soccer is a funny game. Anything can happen."

The return of Bramley has allowed Bavaro the luxury of making wholesale changes to his lineup and enabled some of the midfielders to focus more on offense.

"He is good because he sees the field so well and made some huge saves in the district and region finals. One big save can turn a whole game around," Bavaro said. "The kids have confidence in him back there that allows me to send Reece Riggins up front, and that gives us another element."

Bramley dislocated his right knee cap last year and his left this past November. His absence affected the entire team in numerous ways.

"My father had bad knees, so I guess it runs in the family," Bramley said. "It was hard to sit out, but now we are healthy, and I am not surprised where we are. We are underdogs and we like it. When you are underdogs, teams overlook you and that can play to your advantage."

Riggins moved from midfield to sweeper, and Bavaro put Bobby Photos and Martin Martinez in the middle. Ryan Sollazzo and former defender Felipe Dangond are at striker. Bavaro said the moves give his team a strong midfield and cement the defense with Riggins at sweeper.

Sollazzo had an assortment of injuries, missed nearly the entire first half of the season and was out of shape, according to Bavaro.

"I just told him to work hard during the Christmas holidays to get back in shape, and he did that," the coach said.

Bavaro said the talent was always there, but he might have jinxed the team with some positive oratory at the beginning of the season.

"When we first started off this year, I told the kids if we stay healthy I don't think we will lose a game," Bavaro said. "As soon as I said that we started getting hurt so I don't say that anymore. But I believe if we play our game there is nothing we can't do."

Nobody has a bigger medical chart than Bavaro. The 45-year-old has suffered from rheumatoid arthritis since he was a child, has had three hip surgeries and is due for another.

"I played the sport despite the disease, and it took its toll on me. But I have no regrets," Bavaro said.

The New Jersey native had to do some selling to get his players to change positions, especially with Dangond, who has played defense all his life.

"I prefer defense because when you play defense you are basically hitting other people, and if you play striker you get hit," Dangond said. "I didn't want to change, but lately I have been enjoying it. You score a goal and the crowd cheers. Since everyone came back from their injuries, we've been awesome."

Midfielder Jake Dube said Bramley's presence in the net allows him to take more chances and gives the Mustangs more firepower.

"We trust him with certain things and a lot of us attack more when he is in the net," Dube said. "When he was out, I played a little more defensive and now I can push up more and attack because I have more trust in the defense."

Sollazzo, Dangond and Riggins lead the team with nine goals each. Martinez has six assists, and three other players have five. Bavaro has won three district titles and has a 98-43-34 career record.

"I don't care about the 100th win. I want the state title," said Bavaro, who grew up a ball boy for the New York Cosmos because his dad scouted for the pro team and played a role in Pele joining the club.

Melbourne is coached by Jerry McCabe, who is in his 24th season and has won more than 500 games. The Bulldogs' last appearance in the state final four was 1999.

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